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Buying a Classical Guitar

The guitar is a small orchestra.  It is polyphonic.  Every string is a different color, a different voice.

- Andre Segovia

by Wolf Hatch

Buying a guitar isn't as easy as you would think.   A lot of it is personal preference.  The first thing you want to do is identify what you're looking for.  How much are you prepared to spend?  Are you prepared to wait a few years for the guitar to REALLY start sounding good, or do you want one that sounds good NOW?  Are you ever going to sell the guitar?  If you aren't going to sell it, try to avoid the more famous makers.  There are many guitar makers out there who are REALLY GOOD but aren't FAMOUS, and as such, their guitars are cheaper than you would expect for the sound.  A well-known maker's guitar will cost more at the beginning but could appreciate in value.  An unknown maker, unless he subsequently becomes famous, generally produces guitars that at best hold their value.

If you want a guitar that sounds good now, get one with a cedar top.  Which sounds as good when you buy it as it ever will - or else you could get a secondhand guitar with a spruce top that has already "opened up".  Otherwise, a new guitar with a quality spruce top is going to sound good for the first 6 years, and then start sounding REALLY good.

There are many variables with guitars and the perfect guitar is what sounds best to YOU.  So far, I have concluded that the closest thing to a "perfect" guitar, according to the majority of guitar makers and buyers, would be made of an Alpine or German spruce top.  The grain is important - it needs to be straight grain, with medullar rays.  The back and sides would be made of Brazilian rosewood, it would have a Guinea ebony fingerboard, a neck made of Honduran cedar, Rodger tuning machines, and have a cutaway body.  It's good if the guitar comes with a climate case, and if you're going to fly anywhere with it, a Calton flight case (or something of equal quality) is essential.

The most important part of buying a guitar, is going out and playing several.  Find a couple of songs that have both really high and really low notes that "push" the guitar.  (I've found that songs by Villa-Lobos tend to be good for that.)  If you're going to buy a guitar by mail, get one that you can send back for a refund if you decide you don't like the sound.  I recommend you go to guitar stores if there are any nearby because you learn a lot about what you like best by playing several at once.  (Very tiring, though!)

Another important thing when buying a guitar, especially a nice one, is to make sure you're able to keep one safely.  You should buy a hygrometer first and check how humid it is where you would be keeping the guitar.  Perfect humidity is 50%.  If it's too dry, consider buying a humidifier.  Also, make sure the store you're buying the guitar from has kept it in good condition.  Before you buy, inspect the entire guitar carefully.  Make sure the neck isn't twisted, or warped.  Look carefully at ALL seams.  While looking around for a guitar, I found that a couple had warped and separated slightly.  If a guitar is damaged, it doesn't NECESSARILY affect the sound, but make sure it's repaired well, and make sure you are charged accordingly.  A damaged guitar will not last as long as an undamaged guitar, and as such, should NOT be the same price.

This was taken at the Guitar Salon in New York City

The finish is also impotant.  French polish seems to be the best.  It's very soft, and you need to be carful around it, but when it DOES wear off in a spot, or get nicked or whatever, it's easy to re-apply it in that spot alone.  With harder resins, they last longer, but when they get old you must have the guitar refinished all over.

For care of a guitar, first DO NOT SET IT ON VINYL!  If you leave it touching vinyl too long, the finish will fuse itself to the vinyl.  I trust you see the problem?  Other than that, try and keep the humidity as close to 50% as possible, and wipe body oil off every time after playing.  When playing, try wearing a long sleeved shirt, or else cut the toe out of a sock and wear the rest as a sleeve on your arm where your arm rests on the guitar.  And you can polish it occasionally, but make sure the polish you get is compatible with the finish of the guitar.  Avoid contact with buttons, zippers and anything metal.  Always put your guitar back in its case and fasten the lid securely so you don't pick the case up by the handle later and have the guitar fall out on the floor!

I ended up buying a 1999 Masaru Kohno special.

Hi Wolf,

You asked me what I would have looked for when buying a guitar.  Here are some of my thoughts:

The guitar should speak with a voice that is yours.  That's why you probably choose the guitar you did.  It sounded and felt good to you, and that's a good start, as it will inspire you to play well.  I've found most of the people who deal in guitars (luthiers and dealers) are obsessed with the quality of craftsmenship of things like woodwork, wood materials etc, and often pay little concern to the SOUND of the guitar.  You notice this when you walk into a shop, and the storekeeper drools over his beautiful-looking guitars.  Some people, would you believe, even collect high-end guitars, and never play them, just stick them on the wall to look at.  I talked to a very fine maker once, a was student of Greg Smallmen, who said a disgruntled Japanese customer had sent back one of their guitars because of one tiny scratch in the soundboard!  He obviously wasn't too concerend about playing, because if you look closely at any professional player's guitar you will see all kinds of wear and tear: it goes with the territory.

This is where the whole resale price thing comes in. Guitars are sought by collecters because of their name.  That is why people want one of Greg Smallman's - because John Willams plays one, so they assume it must be a good guitar.  I've heard that he only made a few really good guitars, and John Willams happens to have one of them.  I've played one of his guitars, and it was lovely, but if you look, the majority of Australian pro guitar players play guitars by a maker called Simon Marty, as his are ALL really good and only $10,000 AUS rather than $20-25,000.


Hi Wolf,

How's your guitar going?  I had some more thoughts about your e-mail, as I found it quite thought provoking.

The thing that amazes me is how there's a certain psychology surrounding the way people approach buying a guitar.  The same principles seem to govern the purchase of acoustic and electric instruments.

As far as I understand, and have seen this from experience, many people think the guitar is some cheap instrument that they aren't prepared to pay over a few $100 for, and don't see any reason why people would.  I find many people in New Zealand can't believe my guitar is worth $5,000, and you can tell they don't seem to be able to comprehend why anyone in their right mind would pay that much for such a thing.  The funny thing is, if you talk to teachers of other instruments, you'll find that people have no trouble forking out thousands of dollars for a piano, violin, cello, etc.  I think it's just a mentality that people have about the guitar, that it is some sort of cheap folk sing-along instrument.

That's one perspective, which it is great that you don't have, and I think it's fantastic that you value the importance of buying a quality instrument.

On the other hand, when people are buying their "dream" guitar, I find there's a different psychology at work.  I've found, and I must confess I do this too from time to time myself, that we are all influenced by certain things people say and do that give us a perspective on what is the best guitar.  For example, and this is common, we listen to the best guitar players in the world, and think that we need the guitar that they play if we want to sound like them.  Of course, they sound like them, and we sound like us, so even if we buy their guitar off them, we will still sound like us, playing on their guitar!  This is particularly prevalent with the type of purchase you've made, as there are only probably 50-100 or so really top class makers of these type of guitars in the world, so it narrows down the options greatly.

I must clarify from my last e-mail, when I mentioned that many makers and particularly dealers are possibly too interested in the type of materials used and look of the instruments, I did not mean to seem critical of Robert Ruck as I understand that he is one the best makers in the US, and many top players there use his guitars.  I am sure he and many others are trying to build the best guitars they can in every respect possible, as many of the top makers are artists as well as craftsmen.

I would say at least one of the reasons Ruck is such a big name in the US, is that Manuel Barrueco records on one of his guitars from the 70s,  Barrueco is one of the best classical guitar players in the world, and possibly the most promiment classical player in the US, so it is natural that many pople would want one, as, if you listen to Barrueco's recordings, his tone and sound is incredible.  Of couse a lot of that is the way he plays, but the guitar still sounds great.  So a mentality develops about his guitars, and suddenly everyone wants one, which with the makers limited output means that the price in many cases goes through the roof.

Of course, not all people are Manuel Barrueco, so the makers make different "quality" instruments to suit the clients, and this is probably much more common with the "prolific" makers.  Not everyone has an unlimited amount of money to spend, so the maker has to make guitars to suit.  This is what I was saying about Greg Smallman's guitars.  They are all good guitars, but not all of them are as good as the one you hear on John Williams last few albums, as every guitar has its own individual qualities.  So you can possibly be paying more for one than what it is worth.  It dosn't necesarily mean makers are either ripping people off, or not trying to make the best guitar they can.  It's just simple dynamics of demand and supply.

Are the big name instruments great guitars?  Of course.  Are they worth what you pay for them?  It depends how important the "extra 20%" is to you.  Could you get something as good for less?  Quite possibly if you look around, but if you get a "name" one it will resell for more as the demand and "perceived value" increases.

This is why it's good to try as many as you can, and pick a guitar that you like, as I'm sure most of the good makers have made some fantastic instruments and you can possibly pay less than what you would for a guitar by say Greg Smallman, Matthias Dammann, Ignacio Fleta or Robert Ruck.....if price is an issue.


Modern Guitar

Artist D M Ross Guitar: Oil on Canvas

Artist: David Ross Width: 76 cm
Title: Guitar Height: 101 cm
Year Created: 1999 Depth: 3 cm
Medium: Oil Painting Edition Size: Original
Theme: Music Price: US$ 2,500

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This page last updated on: Sunday, 18 January 2004

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